One might imagine that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, might be a broken man after his election defeat last year and colleagues deserting him. But Peta Thornycroft of the Independent Foreign Service found him remarkably resilient when she interviewed him last week at his posh, northern suburbs home in Harare.
Harare - It could hardly have been a worse political year for Morgan Tsvangirai but he seems sharper and quicker on his political feet than when he was hailed in London and Washington as a new-style African leader who would overcome Robert Mugabe, sometimes regarded as Africa’s most brutal leader.
Tsvangirai says Zimbabwe is unable to stop the economic collapse that is gathering pace again. This will deliver political opportunities for the MDC. But the next elections are only in four years, and many constitutionally mandated reforms ignored in the last poll may now never see the light of day.
Zanu-PF seems no longer threatened and its sharpest talons are partially withdrawn, there is some political space, a tad more tolerance. The dark days are less dark and Zanu-PF mocks Tsvangirai, via its large media stable, with less poison.
Some academics say Mugabe’s post-2000 land grab from productive white farmers was a success because it delivered small farms to thousands of Zimbabweans, now known as “new” farmers.
Tsvangirai says land redistribution was long overdue and some new, small black farmers are growing tobacco for more money than they dreamt possible. But it failed nationally because Zimbabwe now cannot feed itself, as the staple food, maize, remains in short supply.
“Zanu-PF admits now there was an unfair distribution of land; they replaced white farmers with black elites in government and the black elite doesn’t know how to farm. There is (illegal) multiple-farm ownership and the government is not able to invest in creating skills capacity of new farmers in order to produce.
“Land is part of Zanu-PF’s system of patronage. That’s how it clings to power. I would not be surprised if surviving white farmers are paying them (Zanu-PF leaders) off. Our approach was that land redistribution should not be haphazard because that would affect production, as it did.
“We hoped Zanu-PF would accept the system of land title to finance production. New farmers are wholly dependent on government for inputs.”
Some insiders say the MDC did not campaign sufficiently or register enough new voters last year to have won elections, given Zanu-PF’s extraordinary effort. But any observer of the polling would also have seen there were gross violations of election law. The electronic voters roll remains unavailable until today.
Even the hard copy of the voters roll only arrived in bits and pieces the night before polling, and not all of it. Unprecedented numbers of voters were turned away, especially in MDC strongholds, where there were also extraordinary numbers of new voters who did not live in constituencies where they voted.
But Tsvangirai says he does not regret the contest, and he is not going to “cry over spilt milk”.
Today, though, the MDC is not only beaten but broke. Treasurer Roy Bennett, who lives in exile, mostly in South Africa, has created an internal “rebellion” against him, Tsvangirai says. He calls this a “splinter”, unlike the previous MDC split, which many say denied the party an outright victory in 2008 with a majority too large even for Mugabe to have manipulated or denied.
“I am surprised at the turn of events,” Tsvangirai says of moves by the party’s secretary-general Tendai Biti to expel him as president of the party.
“He is a lawyer, he knows better. There was no tension between us, we got on well together. There are now various tentacles and forces behind it. It was Bennett but we can’t expel someone we don’t have access to. He can’t come here.
“He is the one who started this whole thing, he has been consulting Biti and former deputy treasurer, Elton Nangoma. I have no doubt where Biti’s loyalties lie.”
Bennett hasn’t spoken lately on the rift.
“Reconciliation? It depends who is prepared for reconciliation,” Tsvangirai says. “I have never considered this an effect on MDC. It may be serious in the eyes of the international community… another split. But people on the ground are very clear, and we will go forward on this basis. We are in a struggle for democracy, we are not going to stop anyone coming back because something was done against me.
“I have no grudge against anyone. I believe I was elected by the people and my mandate is for five years. If anyone wants to challenge that, in a proper forum, then do it, but don’t engage in a hostile takeover.
“We can’t say to Mugabe he should get out because he is too old. He must be feeling pressure because he is so old and there is health pressure, but there is a constitution which must be followed.”
Tsvangirai believes the UK, via the European Community, wants to re-engage with the Zanu-PF government, at almost any cost: “In the early to late 1990s a human rights agenda was at the forefront, no doubt about it, but in a continent… facing other crises, obviously the focus will change, depending on the crisis. And it puts the human rights agenda at the bottom of the priorities.
“But for the people who are affected by human rights abuses, it is a priority. And the agenda for democracy, unemployment, distribution of wealth, poverty are critical issues for Zimbabwe. And those will not change because there is a war in Syria or because of al-Qaeda. Their world perspective is dominated by their experience.
“What has changed in my own view is the philosophy; there is a general fatigue about the Zimbabwe issue, it is better to re-engage on the basis of stability rather than democracy So the objective has changed; these days, as long as there are no dead bodies on the streets, then that’s OK, then things are OK in Zimbabwe.
“The Zimbabwe government wants to re-engage the West, but on their own terms and not on the terms the West defined as the universal basis, so there is a contradiction between the two approaches.”
The EU would rather have an engagement with Zanu-PF and restore normalcy, whatever normalcy is.
Tsvangirai has not seen Mugabe since last year’s elections, and was not invited to his daughter Bona’s wedding in March.
“To be truthful, he is a wily politician. His main objective is to defend his power, nothing else. To him economics doesn’t matter as long as he is guaranteed his power. That’s why some of his policies are contrary to economic logic.
“I have no doubt he is totally in control and he has put up a system to be in control. Those who try to put that argument that he is not in control are apologists for Mugabe. Of late he may have lost some control because of health issues but during the days of the government of national unity you could engage him on everything.
“I remember him saying at one time a country does not (go) broke. Then you wonder. Countries do (go) broke. But he doesn’t believe governments go broke.
“I am sure he gets briefed on the economy and what people are saying. The Central Intelligence Organisation is there for that. I don’t think there is any attempt to fudge the information on the ground.
“Economically we are hurtling down at a faster pace than we were during hyperinflation. We didn’t have money to import things then, now we have a deflationary position – we have the goods but we don’t have money to buy them.”
The state media, largely loyal to Mugabe and Zanu-PF, have been exposing extraordinary corruption by many senior civil servants and Tsvangirai believes the exposures are selective.
“It’s a pre-emptive strike, so that Zanu- PF can be seen to be saying, ‘see, we are clean, we are exposing corruption, look at what we are doing’.”
Tsvangirai is, like others, concerned about internal struggles in Zanu-PF over who will succeed Mugabe.
“Zanu-PF has so many factions fighting for succession and this has assumed (ethnic) overtones, which is very worrying.
“I still have the support of people but I don’t want to die in office. I didn’t trust Mugabe. I had to work with him to rescue people, not to seek power, and the MDC achieved that objective.
“I am accused of being rich. I bought a new house for my wife, as in Shona custom she cannot live in the house of my dead wife. I borrowed money for that.”
He said he arranged finance with Mu-gabe and it was bought as the prime minister’s residence. “I doubt I will find the money to buy it. Meanwhile, I use it.”
Independent Foreign Service